Tete-a-tete Archives

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Tete-a-tete: When saying ‘sweetheart’ just won’t do

As someone who dabbles in etymology and foreign languages for fun, unusual words have always made my heart go pitter-patter. The more obscure the word, the more exciting the discovery and the more eager I am to use it.

You would think such logophilia would be an asset to a newspaper columnist, but in truth, it’s a bit of a stumbling block. Newspaper writing is supposed to be clear, concise and devoid of unnecessary words.

Items are always written with a specific inch count in mind (i.e., how much room it takes up on the page) and a colorful vocabulary that sometimes requires additional context can make it difficult to communicate all of your ideas within the available space.

Personally, I blame my childhood. I read constantly while I was growing up, and I cried when I got my first library card. These weren’t tears of joy – new cardholders were only allowed to take out three books on their first visit and I was accustomed to borrowing a dozen at a time with my parents’ cards.

To further complicate matters, many of my favorite authors when I was younger, as well as today, are English – Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, C.S. Lewis. The rathers, indeeds and quites that pepper my writing as a result, coupled with my fascination with uncommon words, induces me to reread my work with a critical eye and make sure I actually said something and didn’t just drown my point in a sea of verbiage.

But today, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to share a few words for which I have great affection and which also have a connection to the holiday.

The following are taken from one of my favorite lexical resources, “Endangered Words” by Simon Hertnon, which can easily be ordered online or through your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Drachenfutter: a peace offering from guilty husbands to their wives. From the German “drachen” (dragon) and “futter” (feed, fodder, animal food).

The image this word conjures up is fabulous in its specificity: that of an angry wife (the dragon, presumably) being appeased by a gift (the feed or fodder) that her husband brings home after staying out overly late with his friends, forgetting an anniversary, etc.

A reminder for my gentlemen readers in light of the approaching holiday: If Valentine’s Day is important to your sweetheart and you allow it to slip by uncelebrated, you’ll need to invest in some serious drachenfutter to make amends.

Millihelen: a unit of measure for beauty, corresponding to the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. From the combination of the prefix “milli” (which indicates a thousandth) and Helen of Troy, whose legendary beauty is said to have launched a thousand ships.

Since one Helen launched a thousand ships, it therefore follows that a millihelen, or a thousandth of a Helen, indicates the capability to launch a single ship. A woman whose beauty measures 742 millihelens is thus capable of launching 742 ships.

Another note for my gentlemen readers: As intriguing as the millihelen system is, most women would rather have their beauty measured in Helens. I suggest you refrain from measuring the attractiveness of your beloved in millihelens unless you have an unlimited budget for drachenfutter.

Elozable: amenable to flattery. Thought to come from the Old French “eslosable,” which in turn is from “esloser” (to praise).

What a marvelously elegant alternative to “flatterable,” which unfortunately makes it sound like the individual in question is capable of becoming flatter.

This word is crucial for my lady readers in addition to the gentlemen, as nearly everyone is elozable to some extent. Hardly a soul exists who doesn’t appreciate a sincere compliment, so I encourage you to be generous in extolling the virtues of your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, or any day, for that matter.

Inamorata: a female lover, mistress or sweetheart. From the Italian “innamorare” (to inflame or inspire with love). The masculine form of inamorata is inamorato.

If you’re unmarried but are dating someone and have reached a certain age, it can feel a bit awkward to introduce your significant other as your boyfriend or girlfriend. Some choose to navigate this hurdle by referring to said individual as their partner, but to me, that word has a very detached and clinical feel. It sets a loving relationship on par with a law firm.

Enter the inamorata or, if you’re referring to a male significant other, the inamorato. It has a deeper, more passionate connotation of this being the person who makes your heart pound and carries a certain elegance that’s absent from words such as “honey” or “sweetie.”

A vibrant vocabulary is an especially good asset at Valentine’s Day, when sentimental cards and heartfelt declarations of devotion abound. The right word at the right time can make all the difference.

I encourage you to incorporate these words into everyday conversation, as well. If words aren’t used regularly, they’re eventually forgotten and we lose their unique contribution to our language.

It’s hoped drachenfutter won’t become quite as commonplace as the rest of the lexical rarities in my list. Providing your inamorata is appropriately elozable and you steer clear of millihelens, everything should be just fine.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Feb. 8, 2012.

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